When North Korea conducted another Musudan missile test hours before Ri Su-yong's visit to China, a Chinese scholar predicted, "It would be difficult for Ri to be granted a meeting with Xi Jinping." He was wrong.
Xi met with Kim Jong-un's envoy despite the missile test, and despite the fact that Ri, while he was in Beijing, emphasized North Korea's unwavering commitment to the development of nuclear weapons. Apparently, Xi did not make a big deal out of it, which suggests that there is a more important and urgent concern for China to deal with at hand: the United States.
Chinese observers interpreted the meeting as Xi taking a personal initiative to strategically engage with North Korea at a time when China suspects that the United States is stepping up its Pivot to Asia to encircle China. China responded, by resorting to its geopolitical instincts to rehabilitate "the North Korea card" in the conflict structure against the United States.
Chinese media admit to this interpretation. When the South Korean government played down the significance of Ri's visit as "customary" between the political parties of the two nations, a Chinese TV commentator "corrected" this characterization by stating that the visit was "more than" a party-to-party exchange but deals with "geopolitical matters."
The disputes over the South China Sea; President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam; John Kerry's visit to Mongolia; the THAAD deployment talks in South Korea; Washington strengthening its alliances with Tokyo and Seoul, as well as sharing military intelligence with the two Asian allies; the G7 summit in Hiroshima; not to mention the Shangri-La Dialogue are all geopolitical matters. Dig up the latest news reports on these topics and one can see that all of them serve as a basis for Chinese paranoia.
A Chinese pundit said that the U.S. actions went "beyond the line" of Chinese acceptance. China's very public display of the visiting North Korean envoy, including the 10-limousine motorcade, therefore, may be Beijing's political signal to the U.S. that it can choose to use the "North Korea card" when Washington tries to corner China.
There also appears to be a psychological dimension for raising the "North Korea card," timed right before the U.S.-China strategic dialogue which is rife with tension and discord.
Against this backdrop, China was determined to make Ri's visit a "success." There could not be another "communication problem" between Pyongyang and Beijing as was the case in last year's Moranbong girls' band fiasco.
One week before Ri's China visit, the Chinese Olympic basketball team was dispatched to Pyongyang to stage a friendship match. Kim Jong-un who is widely known to be a basketball fanatic watched the game in person. The Chinese national team lost to the North Korean team. The Chinese government then said that the bilateral friendship was deepening
Ri's official China visit kicked off one day after the conclusion of the basketball matches, amid the "deepened friendship."
Even though it was claimed to be a sudden visit, when Ri's delegation descended upon Beijing, they were greeted by the Chinese media at the Capital Airport, and the TV footage of Ri's ten-vehicle motorcade sliding through downtown Beijing while receiving heavy security was widely broadcast ― as if it was meant to be seen.
When Xi Jinping greeted Ri at the Great Hall of the People, he did not put on a grim face, as he did when he met with Choe Ryong-hae, who was Kim's envoy three years ago. Xi staged the look to signal China's displeasure with North Korea's third nuclear test at that time.
Despite Ri's adamant view to stick to nuclear weapons that represent Kim's policy, his meeting with Xi went smoothly. The People's Daily published a picture of the Xi-Ri meeting on its front page's most conspicuous top space. Meanwhile, during Ri's visit, the Chinese state TV aired the opening of a new air route between Pyongyang and Jinan, China, and characterized it as the expansion of China-North Korea ties.
Ri successfully completed his China trip, including the meeting with Xi, by boarding a plane back to Pyongyang highlighted by Chinese media.
So, who is the next North Korean Xi will meet? Contrary to common expectations, neither North Korea nor China appears to be in a great hurry to stage a Xi-Kim summit. The two still have a laundry list to sort out in their estranged relationship. They still have the "face issue" of who didn't respect whom.
Yet, as North Korea desires to lessen the pain of the U.N. economic sanctions, and as China feels cornered by Team America, the duo now have "a shared concern." For Xi, inviting Kim is an expensive card in storage; but it is not an impossible one to use either.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.